Are Vehicle Safety Inspections Useful? Fulton Winner Says No…

The improvements in car safety technology over the past 20 years have caused a number of lay people and government officials to question the efficacy of state-administered mandatory vehicle inspections. Only 16 of the U.S.’s 50 states require them, according to Economics student Alex Hoagland, and those that don’t have not noticed a corresponding rise in accident fatalities due to car failure. Hoagland won first place in his department for the presentation of his research results in BYU’s recent Fulton Conference, sponsored by the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.

Under the direction of Professor Lars Lefgren, he and his co-researcher Trevor Woolley had studied fatality rates in car accidents, by state, that were caused by car failure. Why did they choose this topic? He said, “In our training in the Econ program, Trevor and I felt that many of our economics projects lacked real investigative questions. Therefore, we decided to do something real, and reached out to our local representatives. We got in contact with Rep. Norm Thurston, who had previously become interested in the topic of vehicle safety inspections and was looking for some new research on the topic. He urged us to choose that as our topic for our Applied Econometrics class project, and so we did.”

The Research

Alex’s research contributes to a large body of research that shows no conclusive evidence exists between vehicle safety inspections and a reduction in mechanical-error car accidents. According to the Libertas Institute, a Utah think tank: “comprehensive studies show that there is no link between mandatory inspections and a reduction in vehicle failures or fatalities, so in absence of that justification, the program should not exist. And now it won’t, once the governor signs it.” Governor Gary Herbert signed the bill into law in March of 2017, and it will take effect in January 2018.

Senator Jim Dabakis corroborated this, saying: “The statistics from all of the states that have revoked and done away with these mandatory inspection systems; the statistics are out, there is no safety increase for the states that have this.”

econ 1st place

If these inspections aren’t helping, why do we have them? Alex theorizes that “…a lot of people have the preconceived notion that they must be useful for two reasons:

  1. we are all a little of the mindset that we are better safe than sorry, and
  2. we all assume that any existing government program must exist because it works.”

“However, if we stop to think about it, vehicle safety inspections are a byproduct of the 1930’s and 1940’s, when cars were at their worst. With advances in technology and increases in driver awareness, however, it seems obvious that what worked for the 30’s and 40’s wasn’t going to work now.”

He suggests that states should instead be focusing on things like distracted drivers, seat belts, and drunk driving. Alex hopes that through his research, governments will be able to make their roads safer: “We want to help state governments focus their attention on the areas where they can make the most impact in order to keep the roads, vehicles, and drivers safe.”

The Fulton Conference

Of his experience at the Fulton Conference, which is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students in the college to share their research with members of the general public, Alex said: “[It] was an amazing opportunity to describe our research and receive feedback from our colleagues and professors. We also had a wonderful time surveying all of the other research going on in the school; it made me realize just how many bright and clever minds we have at this university working on complicated and important issues.”

Do you think safety inspections are effective?

Utah is Better at Getting People Out of Poverty, But Why? Our Economics Professors Answer.

Utah is a model to many other states of upward mobility, or the ability of people to get themselves out of poverty, according to a 2014 study done by four Harvard and University of California, Berkley analysts. Bloomberg View reporter Megan McArdle visited Utah in March of 2017 to discover its secrets to the American dream. Along the way, she met two BYU economists, who weighed in on Utah’s success.


How Does Utah Do It?

She learned that The Church of Latter-day Saints leads the way in helping the impoverished rise to economic stability, if not success. She learned that Utahns emphasize education as a means of getting out of poverty. She learned, after meeting with government leaders and civil servants, that they form a “cheerfully effective bureaucracy.” And she saw that, in Utah, the community is heavily involved in helping others out of poverty, and Welfare Square is the center of the action. That is where volunteers provide help to those in need, but they help the needy help themselves.

Exposure to Different Social Networks in Schools

In the 2014 study she worked to understand, she learned that the inequality that best predicts low mobility is the distance between a community’s upper middle class and its poorest citizens. kids-girl-pencil-drawing-159823BYU economist David Sims has researched income mobility, and said that one of the reasons that Utah is better at it than other states is because its schools tend to introduce kids to different social networks, just by virtue of their school boundaries. This makes for a “leveling of the playing field,” so to speak. Says Sims: “What it’s especially good at is a sort of middle classness that’s so broad it’s almost infectious.”

Low Racial Diversity

A child born in Charlotte, North Carolina has a 6.8% less chance that one born in Utah to make it into the top quintile of income, if he or she was born into the lowest income quintile. McArdle theorizes that one of the reasons  has to do with Utah’s relatively low racial diversity:

“When the poor people are, by and large, the same race as the richer ones, people find it easier to talk about them the way they might talk about, well, family members — as folks who may have made some mistakes and started with some disadvantages, but also as folks who could be self-sufficient after a little help from an uncle or a sister. It’s a very different conversation from “victim”/“oppressor” and “us”/“them”: a conversation that recognizes that poor people often make choices that keep them in poverty, but also that the constraints of poverty, including the social environment of poor neighborhoods, make it very difficult to make another choice.”

High Rates of Religious Practice and Marriage

She, along with the authors of the study (Chetty et al), also attribute the higher rate of upward mobility to relatively high rates of religious practice. Chetty et al state that “religiosity is very strongly positively correlated with upward mobility, while crime rates are negatively correlated with mobility.” Since Utah’s population is predominately LDS, there is less alcohol sold and more marriages. These are factors that reduce poverty, say McArdle. Likewise, Kathryn Edin, at a recent Hinckley lecture on poverty, said that family instability and complexity are both consequences and causes of poverty, and that it is more common among low-income families. Chetty et al also suggest that having two married parents is a bedrock foundation of economic mobility. However, society is shifting away from marriage.  “Why don’t we use what we have?” asks BYU economist Joe Price, in response to that trend. pexels-photo-110204“You’ve got this institution that has worked for thousands of years, [but] there’s a reluctance to use the word ‘marriage’ in public policy.”

Utah’s relative success at providing opportunities for getting out of poverty isn’t due to any heavy-handed government policy or large amounts of per-pupil spending on education. It is due, not only to the factors already listed, but also:

  • an aggressive war on homelessness by its government,
  • a brand of “compassionate conservativism that went hand-in-hand with an unusually functional bureaucracy”
  • the Mormon welfare network, which strongly encourages emergency preparedness, is staffed by an “unrivaled system of highly-organized community volunteer work,” and is structured so that recipients of financial help are led back to self-sufficiency.

What Does This Mean for Other States and People?

Beyond the reasons for Utah’s relative success in this area, though, there are bigger questions, the biggest of which is whether or not other states can replicate what Utah has done. She says:

This does raise some questions about the viability of Utah’s “compassionate conservative” model outside the state. The vast welfare infrastructure from the Mormon Church naturally makes it easier to have smaller government. Perhaps that could be replicated by other communities. But the values of the Mormon Church may create a public that simply needs less help. That’s harder for another community to imitate. I’m not sure this key ingredient is available in a secular version; I think religion might only come in religion flavor.

I really, really wanted to find pieces of Utah’s model that could somehow be exported. Price gave me some hope. The Mormon Church, he says, has created “scripts” for life, and you don’t need religious faith for those; you just need cultural agreement that they’re important. We have lots of secular authorities who could be encouraging marriage, and volunteering, and higher levels of community involvement of all kinds. Looking at the remarkable speed with which norms about gay marriage changed, thanks in part to an aggressive push on the topic from Hollywood icons, I have to believe that our norms about everyone else’s marriages could change too, if those same elites were courageous enough to recognize the evidence, and take a stand.






Alumni Brigitte Madrian to Speak on Household Financial Decision-Making

Keeping track of one’s monthly expenses can perhaps seem a fruitless task in light of the often meager incomes that college students receive. But it is during those college years when mastering one’s finances is so crucial, both because it enables them to spread those meager incomes farther and to learn and implement money management skills that will provide the basis for a happy family life after college. Whether you are an FHSS student, faculty, or alumni, financial awareness is crucial to your peace and security, now and in the future. On October 13th, alum Brigitte Madrian will be speaking on how to make smart financial decisions, and how to avoid common financial mistakes. All are invited.



Who is Brigitte Madrian?

Doctor Madrian is respected as an authority on the matter of household finances. She graduated from BYU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics, and went on to obtain a PhD in the same subject from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has since been on the faculty of several universities and authored a book, as well as a plethora of studies in peer-reviewed academic journals. Madrian co-directs the Household Finance working group of the National Bureau of Economic Research.  Today, she is the Aetna Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Legislation regarding employer-sponsored 401(k) plans been impacted because of Madrian’s research, according to Ideas42, a nonprofit working to apply cutting-edge behavioral insights to some of the world’s toughest social problems. Since her days as a cougar, Madrian used skills gained from her education and research to help many people make smarter financial decisions. Whether you are an E-con major, or just trying to be the master of your money, there is something in her lecture for you.

Are you in control of your money, or is your money in control of you?


Brigitte Madrian at a Cougar football game with her family


Alumni Spotlight: Randall Lewis and Big Data

randall_3cropped_headshot_blur-941x1024If you’ve ever googled or binge-watched  something, or read news online, then you’ve more than likely used Google, Netflix, or Yahoo. Other than being some of the most frequently-used apps and sites in the “interverse,” they have another thing in common: Randall Lewis. The BYU graduate has worked at each of these tech companies. Currently employed at Netflix, he statistically analyzes data he has gathered from sales both offline and online, searches, clicks, page views, and survey outcomes. big-data-1667212__180In his own words: “As an applied econometrician, I use causal statistics to extract valuable insights from large data sets. In today’s digital economy, this requires inventing new types of measurement systems and cleverly adapting econometric algorithms to efficiently perform advanced analyses at scale (i.e., causal machine learning).”

With a job description like that, it is no surprise that Lewis has a doctorate in Economics, with a focus on econometrics and industrial organization, from MIT. It’s also no surprise that he has won several related award, which include:

  • BYU Hinckley Presidential Scholar and Valedictorian, with a double major in mathematics and economics
  • MIT Presidential Fellow
  • Yahoo! Superstar Runner­Up, Nominee

While attending BYU, he was an economics programmer/researcher for a year and a half. This was followed by a similar post at MIT and a pre-doctoral job at Yahoo as a research assistant. After two years, Lewis was promoted to Economic Research Scientist at Yahoo upon completing his PhD. write-593333__180After four years at Yahoo, he moved to Google to work as an Economics Research Scientist. Three and a half years later, Lewis was hired by Netflix for a similar role.

Randall Lewis is one of a growing number of economists who are breaking the mold of the job type economists are usually hired to do, which is to research exchange rates and recessions. Today, according to the New York Times: “businesses are studying the data trails of consumer behavior to help digital companies make smart decisions that strengthen their online marketplaces in areas like advertising, movies, music, travel and lodging.” Lewis is part of this new wave of corporate economic research that is revolutionizing the way tech companies market their products.

If you are an alumni of BYU’s School of Family Life, or any of the nine other departments in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, we’d like to hear your story! Please share with us your accomplishments, your stories of service and inspiration. Share them at

Does Utah’s Poor Winter Air Quality Hurt School Attendance?

Northern Utah’s unique geographical situation leads to periods of crippling inversion during certain times of the year, primarily the month of January.  With this poor air quality causing many negative health effects, young children are frequently kept inside for recesses during times of inversion.  But, could the inversion be affecting more than just recreation?  What if the existence of inversions altered school attendance in general?
In conjunction with our college’s recent Fulton Conference, a team of economics students including Nicholas Hale, Ryan Allen, and John Cannon, researched this concept.  Their research found a positive correlation between elementary school absences and air pollution.

The Results of the Study

The team studied four different Utah school districts: Alpine, Provo, Salt Lake City, and Park City.  Using Park City School District as a quasi-control district because of its higher elevation and subsequent lower exposure to poor air quality, they were able to track school attendance and then compare those numbers to the fluctuating inversion levels.
Previous research showed that an increase in air pollution was associated with a 1.5 to two percent increase in elementary school absences.  Researchers predicted that, during an inversion episode, the percentage of absences could triple to six percent or higher.
Though this may sound like an unfavorable statistic, the research shows that air quality, and thus the correlated attendance levels, has actually been improving when compared with decades past.
Courtesy of Flickr.

The Impact of the Study

Nicholas Hales, one of the student researchers, explained, “In 1992, Dr. Pope [a faculty mentor for the project] published a paper that explored a positive association between air pollution exposure and elementary school absences in Utah Valley.  This study was conducted during a time when air pollution levels were much higher in Utah Valley due to the operation of a large steel mill.  Our more recent study was conducted to see if this association persisted at today’s lower levels of air pollution.”
Because the research shows a continued correlation today, the findings could help resolve problem in the future.  Says Hales: “[The research] may be evidence that, if air pollution were further reduced in Utah Valley, elementary school attendance might increase marginally. I think this research would be interesting and potentially helpful to parents, teachers, and others involved in elementary education.”
The details of Hale, Allen, and Cannon’s study are presented in their winning poster below:
A Quasi-Experimental Analysis of Elementary School Absences and Air Pollution.jpg
The purpose of the conference at which Hales and his co-authors presented their poster was to provide an opportunity for students, both undergraduate and graduate, to participate in and present meaningful research in their field of study. Looking back on his experience, Hales stated: “I loved being involved in the Fulton Conference.  It was a great opportunity for me to explain the research I participated in to a wider audience.  I really appreciated the opportunity to prepare my poster and present it.  I would definitely encourage other students to participate in the future.”